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Western Conservationists Are Ignoring Local Communities in Mission to Save 'Cuter' Animals

At a wildlife crime meeting in South Africa, activists said poaching could not be tackled without addressing the needs of the people that live with wildlife, who are often disregarded or mistreated.
Image via Dr. Susan Canney

In 2012, Mali's elephants came under attack for the first time.

After the Tuareg rebel uprising and coup, their northern migration paths were no longer on land controlled by the government. The instability meant the area was awash with guns. The rebels needed money, and had begun to turn to poaching for ivory, despite the elephants' very small tusks.

The elephants had already been suffering for some time: forests and bushland were being cleared, and they had to compete with enormous herds of cattle for their water supply.


But hearts at the Mali Elephant Project, which had been working hard to prevent this, sank when war broke out. Gourma elephants trek for 300 miles a year in search of food and water — the most unusual migration pattern of any elephants. There are only 550 elephants in Mali, but they constitute 12 per cent of the world's West African elephant population. It seemed that these could not survive the total insecurity their habitat had been thrown into.

Not knowing what to do, the project's co-ordinator, Dr. Susan Canney, said that that was when they turned to local people for help.

Young, unemployed men were being persuaded to join the jihadis, with generous salaries of $30-$50 per day — a fortune in northern Mali. So the Mali Elephant Project started its own recruitment drive: it wanted a network of young people to look out for the elephants, and report killings or anything suspicious. It proved an incredible success.

The project could only pay them in food for looking out for the elephants and reporting their killers — far less than the jihadis were offering.

However, "Not one of them joined the jihadis. They said the project work was more noble - it gave them status in their communities. Suddenly they had a role," Dr. Canney told VICE News.

"To me it's an absolute no-brainer. You've got all this Sahel — and it's terribly degraded," she said, referring to the semi-arid belt south of the Sahara Desert in which Mali sits. "You've got unemployed young men who are at risk of radicalization. It's so cheap to employ them. It's costing us about $90,000 a year to protect an area the size of Switzerland."


Not only that, but: "They've been turning back the degradation. Forests are re-growing."

A meeting of the Mali Elephant Project's local vigilance network. Image via Dr. Susan Canney.

Local people are often overlooked in the quests to save various species; despite being their neighbors, they are not always consulted by conservation organizations designing solutions from thousands of miles away to protect rhino or elephant or apes. They are also often vilified as poachers themselves. In many areas, they find themselves the victims of misguided policing.

There are tribes across Africa that have inherited a culture of hunting — but to feed their families, not Vietnamese demand for fetishist products. These often face arrests and beatings for living the way their ancestors did for generations.

At the moment, efforts to tackle poaching have two main focuses: to tighten up law enforcement, and to reduce demand coming mainly from Asia.

According to a high-level wildlife crime symposium that has just met in Johannesburg, the local communities who live around endangered wildlife could transform conservation efforts. But, one of its organizers told VICE News, they have been almost completely ignored.

"Communities are not very visible in the whole international community response to wildlife crime at all at the moment," Dr. Rosie Cooney, an Australian ecologist, said.

"People frame it as a law enforcement problem, and then the response is very simple — we need to make them obey the law. We frame this in a slightly broader way. People are doing things that hurt wildlife — why are they doing that?


"When we're talking about tackling the poaching that feeds into this wildlife crime, we need to be looking at communities. It should be completely obvious, but it's actually almost invisible in many of the wildlife crime responses at the moment."

A community map used by the vigilance network. Image via the Mali Elephant Project.

These "completely obvious" recommendations that were made by the group of 70 experts included "strengthening the ability of communities to be involved in decision-making surrounding action to combat the international wildlife trade (IWT)" and "recognizing the central role of the communities that live close to wildlife in addressing and combating IWT."

Dr. Cooney and her colleagues are hoping that they will be on the agenda at the world's most important wildlife crime summit, due to be held in Botswana later this month. This is Africa's sequel to the London summit, hosted by Prince Charles and Prince William last year.

"In a lot of the northern governments — where a lot of this policy is being shaped — local communities have no voice," Dr Cooney said. "They're not represented there. There are a hundred animal protection and environmental NGOs in Europe who are driving the European response to this, but virtually no organizations that represent community voices. It is amazing."

She said that this could partly be because animals are "cuter" and the communities involved often have no money or power.

Two years ago, the United States led a movement to ban the international trade in polar bears. When a Canadian Inuit leader spoke to a meeting of the body who decides, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), he told them about the relationship between the people and polar bears of the Arctic. Many people who were there have said that this insight completely changed their minds on the proposal.


Despite giving a speech at the Johannesburg meeting, Edna Molewa, the South African environment minister who is stamping down on the explosion of rhino poaching in her country, put more emphasis on targeting the gangs behind it than working with local people.

"This issue of working with communities will not help us to win on its own. It can't be a standalone," she told VICE News. "It's part of a jigsaw puzzle which we have to put in place. It is true that many of our people turn to doing wrong things because they see that there's an incentive, where there's nothing else to do."

Nevertheless, the thing on which she puts "extra priority — one, one, one plus" is capturing poaching kingpins.

"Another piece of the jigsaw is to crack the syndicates. It's a loss to them if we get a kingpin. If you get a kingpin, you collapse the whole syndicate. It takes time to get to that rung — while it's easy to replace a runner — it takes just a day or two."

There is a sad postscript to the story of Mali's elephants.

Even with the network of local "spies" looking out for them, 19 elephants have been killed over the past month by a criminal gang. Men arrive on motorcycles, shoot into the air to disperse people and livestock, and kill the elephants.

Fighting has intensified in recent months. Experts are not hopeful that a truce signed on February 20 will hold. Northern Mali is still an insecure place, and this provides syndicates with the ideal  poaching environment. Before the community can protect the elephants, they need protecting themselves.

Follow Ruth MacLean on Twitter:  @ruthmaclean  

Main image: A patrol by locals working with the Mali Elephant Projects vigilance network.